Leslie S. Klinger: The Historical Context Of Dracula

10.13.09 | 13 Comments

Leslie S. Klinger is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the twin icons of the Victorian era, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. He is the author if The New Annotated Dracula, winner of an Edgar award, and later this month will be teaching a course for UCLA Extension called “Dracula and His World.”

At least a rudimentary understanding of Victorian history is necessary to appreciate the contemporary readership for Dracula. By the beginning of Victoria’s reign in 1837, Britain was in the process of not only creating the Industrial Revolution but becoming the greatest industrialized nation in Europe. Spurred on by the acquisition of overseas territories, England witnessed an exponential burst of industrial growth. New, surprisingly complex forms of commerce arose, much of it as a response to the masses who suddenly swelled cities like Manchester, Birmingham, and London, creating sprawling urban centres where crime and poverty abounded.

By 1868, when Benjamin Disraeli became Prime Minister, Britain had unequivocally become the world’s most powerful nation, and Disraeli loudly and frequently advocated this expansion, epitomized by the coronation of Victoria, at his instigation, as Empress of India in 1876. Disraeli’s “imperialist” foreign policies were further justified by invoking generalizations partly derived from Darwin’s theory of evolution. The argument was that imperialism was a manifestation of what Kipling referred to as “the white man’s burden.” The Empire existed, argued its supporters, not for the benefit—economic, strategic, or otherwise—of Britain, but in order that “primitive” peoples, incapable of self-government, could, with British guidance, eventually become Christian and civilized. This mentality served to legitimize Britain’s acquisition of portions of central Africa and her domination, in concert with other European powers, of China and other parts of Asia.

In the Victorian age, the study of “natural philosophy” and “natural history” became “science,” and students, who, in an earlier time, had been exclusively gentlemen and clerical naturalists, became, after their course of study, professional scientists. In the general population, belief in natural laws and continuous progress began to grow, and there was frequent interaction among science, government, and industry. As science education was expanded and formalized, a fundamental transformation occurred in beliefs about nature and the place of humans in the universe. A revival of religious activity, largely unmatched since the days of the Puritans, swept England. This religious revival shaped that code of moral behaviour which became known as Victorianism. Above all, religion occupied a place in the public consciousness that it had not had a century before and did not retain in the twentieth century.

The end of the Victorian age brought a variety of literature to the public. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae (1889), several novels of J. M. Barrie (who later wrote Peter Pan), Hall Caine’s The Bondman (1890), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and several of Wilde’s plays, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891) and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893), many works of Rudyard Kipling, and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) and The Invisible Man (1897) all caught the public’s eye, to greater or lesser degrees. American works such as Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) also drew attention.

A runaway “best-seller” of the decade was George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), a novel that, with its striking central image of a swooning young woman, bears some similarities to Stoker’s narrative.5 Although little read today, the book told of a young artist and his model, Trilby, who are lovers but separated by social class. When the artist leaves her, she falls under the influence of Svengali, a psychically vampiric impresario and hypnotist, who moulds her into a great singer, “La Svengali.” However, she is only able to—and is compelled to—sing in his trances. When Svengali himself dies, she appears to be freed, but a picture of him causes her to mechanically sing again, and she dies.

Upon publication, the novel caused a sensation in Britain and America. In its first year of publication, it sold 200,000 copies in America alone, and the term “Svengali” came to be applied to any hypnotist. The book was turned into a popular play, revivified the allure of la vie bohème, last glorified in Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie bohème (1851), and probably sparked interest in Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème.

Dracula is in many ways a book of its time. It reflects the Victorian fascination with the supernatural and the rising interest in Spiritualism and the nature of death. Its tale of the invasion of England by a dangerous foreigner mirrors larger concerns about Eastern European immigrants and the Irish question. The women of Dracula exemplify the Victorians’ struggle with the role of women, with Lucy embodying the traditional role and Mina the changing role. The narrative also depicts the confrontation between science and invention, in the form of typewriters, phonographs, cameras, telegraphs, the railroads, and the like, versus the superstitions and traditions of prior years. For a picture of the late Victorian period and its turmoil, Dracula encapsulates nearly every issue of the idea in its shocking story.